CATs: Litter-ally Purr-fect

Like others, I can appreciate the arrangement of our readings this semester. Bain provided somewhat of a foundation for being a good teacher, Barkley presented us with ways to better engage our students, and finally, Angelo and Cross have suggested many ways to measure if our teaching effortsIMG_0155.png were effective in their Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. Our readings have now come full circle and I have lots of great notes for my course revamps for the upcoming academic year.

Prior to listing the various Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs), the authors provided a thorough introduction, which included five assumptions that their classroom research was based on. Their research in developing the techniques came from both an extensive review and literature and their own teaching practices. I especially appreciate that their source of feedback was from “classroom teachers rather than measurement experts” (p. 4).

While the book as a whole was both enjoyable and helpful, the following stood out:

  • “Guideline 4: Don’t ask your students to use any technique you haven’t previously tried yourself.” (p. 9)
    • Again, I’m glad we read this book last. I think this guideline can apply to all the strategies and techniques we’ve learned this semester. There are so many good ideas on paper, however, they may not necessarily align with what we’re teaching at the moment. Specifically, the authors suggest this guideline to “help you avoid wasted time and effort as well as to ensure effective use of these techniques”.
  • CAT 1: Background Knowledge Probe
    • So often, I catch myself saying “Do you all remember ______________ from RHM 175?” RHM 175 is a prerequisite for all of our courses. While the intention of prerequisite courses is to provide a foundation for future learning, that isn’t always the case. It’s only human that we forget, especially if we are an 18 year-old freshman human. Performing a background knowledge probe at the beginning of the semester may help me assess 1. how much information they retained & 2. based on their current knowledge, key point that I need to review. Angelo and Cross warn us that this may be time consuming. However, if planned, it can prevent me having to reteach information in the middle of a new lesson.
  • CAT 41: Chain Notes
    • Now, this one is cool. In short, each student receives an index card at the beginning of the lecture. The teacher then passes around an envelope with a question written on it. Student writes down their response, places it in the envelope, and passes it to the next student. I can see myself using this technique in several ways. I could do it 4-5 times throughout the semester and ask the same question. As the semester progresses, it is my hope that their responses will become more in depth or even more “correct”. I could also use this technique to measure interpretation. Many times we measure this (in larger lectures) by seeing who is still awake and giving us the polite head nods. However, downside, this could distract them from my awesome guided notes. #techniqueproblems
  • CAT 47: Group Work Evaluation
    • While my peers may frown, my 200-400 level courses all have group work/projects. I totally understand why people turn their nose up to group work…probably for the same reasons we all hated it in college. Our success depends on others and sometimes it’s just easier to complete the task alone. However, one of my key college teaching goals is to prepare my students for life after college. Many of them will enter the workforce and have to work in teams of some sort. And like in my classes, you can’t always pick your coworkers. I implement a similar technique called “firing a teammate”. One of my colleagues uses this technique and I thought it was brilliant. Half way (on a predetermined date) between groups being assigned and the project due date, an entire team can fire one of their team members if necessary. Every team member has to agree and send me an email with everyone copied on it (minus the student that is fired). Included in this email must be a detailed reason why I should approve the termination. The basis of this is so that the group isn’t carrying someone who isn’t participating. If approved (which I’ve yet to do), that team member will be notified by me and they must complete the project alone. Harsh, perhaps, but so far I haven’t had to implement this extreme technique. Like other teachers, I do allow students to review their peers and peer reviews account for 5% of their project grade.

Again, I did enjoy this book. However, I didn’t see a replacement for my boring multiple choice/true false exams. Sometimes, I need students to simply know whether something is right or wrong. Perhaps, while progressing through this course and others, I’ll be able to develop a more effective and blended method of summative assessments.


So, what is “student engagement”?

IMG_2242.pngNews flash……I really enjoyed reading Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth Barkley. I had my first taste of student engagement research last summer, and I found it interesting that we freely use “student engagement” without being able to place a solid, commonly-accepted definition with it. It’s become somewhat of a buzz word that we all strive to do…..without truly knowing what it is. Dr. Barkley credits Stephen Bowen for posing a similar question in his “Engaged learning: Are we all on the same page?” article:

“Despite the number of recent vision statements, strategic plans, learning outcomes, and agenda of national reform movements that strive to create engaged learning and engaged learners – ‘an explicit consensus about what we actually mean by engagement or why it is important is lacking’ (p.3)” Loc. 337 (Kindle)

She goes on to say that we are able to define engagement, but there a lack of both consensus and resources for college teachers aiming to engage students in the “trenches”. (Loc 358). While the book doesn’t provide a final, Webster-style definition, she does deepen the conversation and provide many perspectives, techniques and tools to better engage students in the classroom. I found the below points/techniques/strategies interesting:

“The words that describe student engagement to me are passion and excitement”” (Barkley, 2009)

Several of us have talked about this point throughout the semester. We strive for this. However, I’m curious if we do not create passionate and excited students, are we “failing” at engaging them? What if they are active in their learning, but not excited about the course or content? Is student engagement and active learning the same? I suppose that debate is for another day. I look forward to reading your thoughts!

“Engaged students are trying to make meaning of what they are learning” (Loc 370)

Dr. Barkley is speaking my language here. This is how I measure student engagement in my classroom. I say she’s speaking my language, but is this right? Going back to my first point, does “making meaning of what they are learning” equate to “passion & excitement”?


Now, this makes sense. Perhaps it partially answered my questions above. I’ve never been stellar at math, but I envision a formula when looking at this:


If Motivation = students being accountable for their learning, &

Active Learning = students having accountability, ownership, AND participation in the learning process….Then,

Student Engagement = Students who have a participatory role and are stimulated to learn are more engaged then those who do not.

Again, math has always been my frenemy.  Does this make sense to anyone else?


While I did enjoy reading most of the chapters, I particular enjoyed the techniques and strategies. I’ve previously mentioned that I’m a sucker for advice. I’ll conclude this review with several takeaways that really stood out to me. I currently use some of them, and others I plan on using in the near future (TBD).

  • T/S 7: Teach things worth learning
    • This is one I need to work on. Especially in my foundational classes, it’s tough because we have a benchmark of information that needs to be covered. Students know this and automatically tune out anything presented as foundational. My goal is always understanding > knowing, and this section is a reminder to keep that idea in the forefront of my teaching.
  • Telling is Not Teaching
    • OK, this one is cool. I’m already brainstorming this exercise on syllabus day. I may need some practice though. Someone retelling a joke with missing pieces or or leaving out key information is always painful – I can see this happening in the classroom. Either way, the morale of the story is key: telling is not teaching.
  • T/S 37: Celebrate Community – Alumni Invites
    • I remember loving this strategy as a student. Having alumni and/or industry guest speakers always provided a visually end goal. This was especially encouraging when they mentioned how their coursework influenced their professional careers. While many of my guest speakers (I invite 3-5 for each class per semester) may not be alumni, it really does provide an invaluable experience for the students. I feel that this yields engagement because students can relate to that particular classroom experience. Relate…..another great word. It’s easy to invite guest speakers, but like Dr. Barkley mentioned, it’s does require a little work for students to get out of their comfort zone. The first few seconds of silence during the Q&A is always a little painful as a teacher.  SOIs aren’t the kindest, but I’m happy to see positive student in this area.

Insane in the Bain: A Review of Ken Bain’s “What the Best College Teachers Do”

IMG_9846.pngDisclaimer: After failing to come up with a relevant & catchy title, I’ve defaulted to a Cypress Hill pun. 🙂 Additionally, I’ve been humming the song for the better part of the evening. Does anyone remember the “Homerpalooza” Simpson’s episode?

I’m happy to see that many of us are on the same page with our key takeaways & interpretations. Like Darryl, I’m going to spare giving a cover to cover summary of the book. Instead, I’m going to focus on a personal takeaways from several chapters (similar to Kiara). I’m a sucker for good advice, and Ken Bain did not disappoint in What the Best College Teachers Do.

Chapter 1 – Introduction: Defining the Best

This section was a true “introduction” to the book. Bain mentioned that there are two considerations (or acid tests as he put it) in defining a good college teacher:

1: “most of their students were highly satisfied with the teaching and inspired by it to continue to learn” p. 7, &

2. Making sure that students learned through course objectives being met. p. 8

While we of course need to make sure students are truly learning, I was drawn to his stance on student satisfaction. He indicated that this simply wasn’t a popularity contest. Instead,  he was more concerned with if “the teacher had reached them intellectually and educationally, and had left them wanting more” (p. 7). For me, this seems to be a constant struggle. We do in fact want students to like us (as least I do…I understand some will carry the battle flag of not caring). However, it is my responsibility as a educator to instill some sort of appetite for further knowledge. I mentioned this on Kiara’s previous post. I can’t “make” students want to learn. I think this is why this area is my biggest takeaway. It was a subtle reminder that I must keep this idea in the forefront of my teaching practices.

Chapter 2 – What Do They Know about How We Learn?

We’ve all had that one teacher who was really smart, yet wasn’t the best teacher. Bain restated what Dr. Major mentioned in our first class: there’s a sweet spot between content knowledge & pedagogy. Bain discussed two types of knowledge teachers must posses:

1: “keen sense of the histories of their disciplines, including the controversies that have swirled within them, and…

2: “that understanding seems to help them reflect deeply on the nature of thinking within their fields” (p. 25)

This paired knowledge along with metacognition is the recipe to being a good teacher. Again, something that we all have to work on. I can relate to this. While I try to apply all the tips & tricks of teaching & connection, I tend to be a better teacher in the courses I’m more familiar and comfortable with (content wise). Bain provided several keys to this formula, & the one that resinated with me is “questions are crucial” (p. 31). By encouraging a learning environment with questions, we can construct knowledge together as one unit. This also provides me with a opportunity to work through some areas that I may not know the right or wrong answer to. More importantly, I think this creates an body of trust. Once again, something I need to work on.

Chapter 5 – How Do They Conduct Class?

This was my least favorite chapter. Now before you gasp….hear me out. This is my least favorite because it is the area where I struggled the most. Last semester, I taught four new courses. Four courses I had never taught before. Two of those content areas were completely new to me. I had to teach myself before I taught the students & I was lucky to be one hour ahead of them. I considered myself successful if I simply delivered and/or provided the intended information. Looking back, I didn’t focus enough on how my courses/lectures were being organized. This not only was a disservice to my students, but it was a disservice to me as a growing educator. Bain suggested many unifying principles in efficiently conducting class. The one that stuck out the most (to me) was “start with students rather than the discipline” (p. 110). This principle could have been really helpful last semester, and I’m confident it will be helpful going forward. Instead of word or PowerPoint vomiting on them, I could start with information they already know or stimulate discussions to unveil prior knowledge/understanding. This principle lends nicely to his other suggestion of “creating a natural critical learning environment” (p. 99). While the chapter focuses on “conducting” class, I find that many of the principles aide in preparing for class and/or lesson planning. I really should have read this book last summer………


Epilogue: What Can We Learn From Them?

Teaching with your mouth shut


Those words are a nice dose of truth (and another book to add to the to-do list). Bain indicates that we often thinking of teaching as “telling”, but instead we should remember the “conditions in which most—if not all—of our students will realize their potential to learn” (p. 173). He goes full circle to the content v. pedagogy debate. We shouldn’t view it as a debate or two separate concepts, but instead as two ingredients that create the ideal learning environment. “Environment” is a good theme for this book. If the environment isn’t conducive with students being inspired to learn AND learning objectives being met, then we can’t considered ourselves “good teachers”. Harsh, I know. This book get an A+ from me. It will continue to be one of many that I refer back to as I constantly aim towards becoming a better college teacher.

I’ll hang up & listen. Looking forward to your feedback!

Personal Teaching Philosophy

Thank you for reading my Personal Teaching Philosophy! Developing a teaching philosophy has been quite the journey (especially as a new faculty member). I’m constantly making additions and revisions, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever think it’s “perfect”. I look forward to your feedback, and thank you for allowing me to share my own journey in college teaching with you all this semester.


        What attracted me to teaching is the ability to change students’ lives through education. Higher education serves as a gateway to endless opportunities. My mother said it best: “In life, you can lose your job, lose your home, lose your vehicle, or even lose your health. One thing that can never be taken away from you is your education.” That advice has stuck with me throughout my adult life and motivates me to further invest in myself and others through academics. With education comes so much more than a paper-endpoint. I want to produce students who demonstrate the difference between knowledge and development. I not only want them to obtain new information (knowledge), but I want them to be able to dissect and comprehend the various methods (development). Using the following methods, I hope to create well-rounded, educated and career-ready students:

Enculturation: Instruction should not simply be autonomous and abstract. True learning outcomes derive from students being able to adapt and apply new information within the culture that it is being used. Situated cognition blends “knowing” and “doing” to create a hands-on, interactive valuable classroom experience. I want to embed students in a relevant, unfamiliar activity that allows them to apply and mold their basic knowledge of a given subject to solve a problem.  As an instructor, it is my goal to create an encultured environment as well. My style of teaching has students participating in the culture of academia (traditional lectures, research articles, textbook definitions), as well as the culture of the practitioner.  

Learning Communities: I aim to transform my classroom into a learning community as opposed to a group of soloist students.  I want my students to not only learn from me, but to learn from one another. Learning communities (group work) builds students’ self-esteem and encourages accountability to themselves and to one another. As a teacher, I work collaboratively with my students to achieve learning goals, kindle create thinking, create objective agendas and produce academic networks for them to continue past my instruction.

Demonstrate and Expect High Benchmarks: Through my standards and actions, I want students to know that I expect their fullest effort. I hold myself to that same standard. While some tasks may be challenging, true value comes from how you overcome and approach that encounter. Simplistic experiences will not prepare them for life after school. Failure only comes if they don’t give 100%. To encourage aiming high, I address their progress throughout a given course and provide them a roadmap to be successful.

        It is my hope that the above methods not only a strong structure for learning but also an environment where students can feel proud of their academic achievements. Most of my initiatives can be measured though quantitative methods (test scores, retention, readiness).  While those quantitative measures are valued and necessary in academia, my goal is to change the quality of my students, which cannot always be measured. While students having an  “I did it!” feeling as the completion of the course, it is not my end goal. If any part of my teaching encourages them to say “I can do it!” throughout their academic and professional careers, then I can rest well as night.